Loyalty is one of those virtues that can be taken as a vice, depending on who you work for. And loyalty isn’t the same as blind obedience.
Scars Earned In The Service, by Alexander Paul Willging
Word Count: 987
At the moment the electrodes were applied to her forehead, Belle’s entire body went rigid. The world disappeared in a blinding light.
And then she was standing on a street corner in downtown Boston.
But it wasn’t Boston and Belle wasn’t really “there.” For one thing, she didn’t breathe. There was nothing to feel here. No smells, no tastes, no wind. No pain whatsoever. Like someone had coated the whole city in novocaine.
When she looked down, her body was different, too. She was still wearing her black suit. Not a wrinkle to be found. And her hair was straight and neatly parted to the side. Nothing was out of place.
Another sign that this whole place wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real.
But I’m real, Belle thought. My mind makes this real.
“Hey there, Belle.” The flat voice made her freeze. She turned around slowly.
He looked the same as ever. Same surfer’s haircut. Same cold blue eyes. Acid-washed blue jeans below an immaculate Red Sox shirt. He stood with his hands tucked into his pockets, almost smiling at her.
“Scott.” Belle stretched out her hand. “You need to come home now.”
The teenager stared at her hand. Then he shrugged. “Nah.”
“This isn’t right, Scott. You shouldn’t stay here. None of this is real—”
“Says who?” Scott held out his left hand and made a fist.
Without any transition, the scene changed. Now Belle was sitting across from him at a table outside a café. The ambience was definitely Parisian. She heard birds singing and children laughing in the distance. A French waiter came up to pour her a fresh glass of wine.
It finally dawned on Belle that there weren’t any cars or pedestrians in these simulations. Scott had always hated that. He hated any distractions from his Nex-Gen worldbuilding.
“This world is mine, Belle,” Scott said quietly. “It’s not your world. It’s better than your world.”
Belle’s first instinct was to grab him by the shirt collar and scream at him to snap out of this childish nonsense. But her training held her back. She instead offered a calm demeanor.
“Your mother’s dead,” she told him. “Your father wanted me to bring you out for the funeral.”
“I don’t care.”
“How could you not care, Scott? Don’t you love her?”
“Do you still not get it, Belle?” Scott sipped from the wineglass that the waiter had served him. “You don’t feel things here. There’s no sensorium code in this engine. No more hormones, no more tears. You just… exist.” He smiled. “And you play. Forever.”
“So that’s it? You’ll just throw away your whole future? Just play in the virtual world until brain-death?”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
Belle hung her head. She couldn’t do this on her own. She didn’t have the training for this. The kid needed a cybertherapist or a virtual-access priest. Not some second-rate housekeeper.
She pictured trying to explain the situation to his father. Pictured his pale, broken face when she had to tell him that his only son was never coming home again, not even to say goodbye to his mother. To tell him that the whole St. Clair family fortune was in jeopardy.
He’d fire Belle in an instant. That thought hurt more than all the bullshit Scott was giving her. Belle Andrews had served the St. Clairs for over fifteen years and never once missed a day of work. She would rather die than lose the family’s trust.
Scott, on the other hand, seemed ready to let his body die than to face the pain of daily life.
“So what now?” The teen leaned back in his chair. A fully-peeled orange appeared in his hand. He took a bite, then offered it to Belle. “Are you gonna terminate the sim? Gonna drag me back to the estate?”
Belle stared at the orange. Then she looked at Scott’s bland smile. “Would it matter if I did?”
“If you wanna keep your job, it might.”
“You’re a brat. You know that?”
“Yup.” He took another bite of the orange, but didn’t seem to relish it. Belle wondered what was the point of having good food in a world where you couldn’t actually taste it.
As she stood up, Belle smoothed out the front of her suit. She liked this suit. It made her feel confident. Powerful, even. It didn’t matter what problem the family was facing so long as she wore this suit. She was their guardian. Their friend and ally. She’d get them through each crisis no matter what.
But perhaps not today.
“Well, all right.” Belle slowly tucked her hands into her pockets and walked past Scott onto the Parisian boulevard. “Take care of yourself, Scott.”
“You’re really doing this?” His tone was still flat. There was no curiosity or surprise in it. Even if he’d wanted to sound genuine. “Just gonna let Dad down?”
Belle paused in the middle of the empty street. She saw a bluebird soar overhead and turned around to see Scott lounging at the café.
“Yeah,” she said, “I guess I am. We had a good run, but I can’t do my job anymore. I can’t keep holding your family together. Not when I’m the only thing keeping it together.”
“And are you still surprised that I left?”
“Guess not. I’ll tell your dad you’re okay, but promise me you’ll stay out of trouble in here.”
Scott nodded quietly. No snotty comeback for once. Belle was almost proud. She reached out and ruffled his hair, then turned away.
The sim would be over soon. She’d let the techs remove the electrodes and then she’d look Mr. St. Clair in the eye. Tell him that, sadly, Scott wasn’t coming out of his own free will, and yes, this was her resignation from the service. Best wishes to him and her successor, if there would ever be one.
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